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Ashley Steacy of Canada is tackled by Alice Richardson of the U.K. during women’s bronze medal rugby action at the Rio Olympics on August 8, 2016. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
Ashley Steacy of Canada is tackled by Alice Richardson of the U.K. during women’s bronze medal rugby action at the Rio Olympics on August 8, 2016. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Women’s rugby sevens pilot project coming to Western Canada schools Add to ...

When Ashley Steacy was a rugby star at the University of Lethbridge a decade ago, she made her reputation playing the traditional version of the game: 15 players a side.

Steacy was still in university when she joined Canada’s national team in 2007. The same year, she made her debut on the then-fledgling national sevens team.

The popularity of sevens – a faster, shorter version of the game – took off, culminating most recently with its inclusion in the 2016 Summer Olympics, where Canada won bronze.

But even as Canadian women became a force on the international sevens stage, the sport remained a work in progress at lower levels domestically. There was no obvious ladder to climb to reach the national team. This winter, though, a major gap will be filled: the introduction of a women’s sevens league at six universities in Western Canada.

“It’s huge,” Steacy said. “I’m really excited for the girls who will be able to play.”

The new league is a three-year pilot project started by the Canada West Universities Athletic Association and Rugby Canada – an innovative partnership of universities and a national sports organization that’s financed in part by Montreal-based B2ten, a private-sector organization that supports amateur sports.

The goals are to develop a next wave of talent to succeed the current generation, and to keep Canadian student-athletes at home, rather than being lured to the United States by college scholarships.

The first six schools to join the league are the universities of Victoria, British Columbia, the Fraser Valley, Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge. The inaugural season will be played in January and February, with three two-day tournaments featuring all the teams – the standard format for sevens competitions.

With always-tight budgets, the new league is “an innovative way to get women on the field,” said Christine Stapleton, athletic director at the University of Calgary.

Budget cuts are more common than additions. At UBC a few years ago, a review of the school’s many athletic programs trimmed the varsity roster of sports to 24 from 29.

Travel costs are often particularly burdensome in Western Canada . Still, Stapleton expressed confidence the three-year women’s sevens pilot has a shot to become the foundation for a new permanent varsity sport. She cited the value of a women’s team sport – one that is in the Olympics – and the reasonable size of a sevens team roster.

“The cost to get in the game, and stay in the game, will be easier,” Stapleton said.

This initiative could give Canada an edge on the United States in postsecondary rugby sevens. Because of scholarships and a high level of competition, the NCAA is a magnet for athletes in almost every sport. In rugby sevens, however, the Canadian pilot project will rival its U.S. counterpart. NCAA rugby sevens is classified as an “emerging sport,” with 15 varsity programs at schools such as Harvard and Quinnipiac University.

For sevens to become a full-fledged NCAA sport, at least 40 schools must field teams.

“We’re not going to rush headlong,” said Rich Cortez, collegiate director at USA Rugby. But he added: “The Olympics are a powerful incentive.”

USA Rugby offers advice to colleges interested in rugby. The partnership in Canada is more formal. Rugby Canada and B2ten are helping fund the Canada West league, including $2,500 in annual scholarships at each school.

The idea started with B2ten, which has been a financial backer of women’s sevens for several years. B2ten connected with UVic and UBC and then a consensus was forged. Allen Vansen became CEO of Rugby Canada last spring and signed on to the project soon after. Vansen had previously been a senior executive for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, where the rugby sevens tournament was a success and Canada won women’s and men’s gold medals.

“We really love the game,” J.D. Miller of B2ten said. “It’s speed, it’s power, it’s skill, it’s endurance.”

Canada is among the top women’s sevens nations, behind the likes of Australia and New Zealand but ahead of countries such as France and the United States.

There have been four seasons of the World Rugby Women’s Seven Series. Canada finished third in 2012-13 and 2013-14, second in 2014-15, and third again in 2015-16. At the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Canada lost in the semifinals to Australia 17-5 and then took bronze with a 33-10 win over Great Britain. Australia defeated New Zealand 24-17 for gold.

“Canada can bring more medals home,” said Miller, looking ahead to the Olympic Games in 2020 and 2024.

Rugby Canada has mostly focused on the top level of women’s sevens. About two dozen athletes live and train in the Victoria, B.C. suburb of Langford, the team’s home since 2011. The new pilot project at Western Canadian universities will be a boon, said John Tait, coach of the national team.

“Getting a competition like this one going is really important,” Tait said.

New athletes can develop in a short time, said Tait, citing Megan Lukan, who played rugby in high school before four years of NCAA basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Lukan joined the national Canadian sevens team in April 2015, and played in all of last season’s World Series. Last August, at the age of 24, Lukan helped Canada win Olympic bronze in Rio.

Steacy, who is 29 and near the end of her career, said Canada is poised to cement itself as a perennial women’s sevens power.

“Absolutely, no question,” Steacy said. “No doubt about it.”

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